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Album review: 5 Seconds of Summer overcomes repetitive sound with lyrical depth in ‘CALM’

(Courtesy of Interscope Records)

“CALM”

5 Seconds of Summer

Interscope Records

Released Friday

By Kristin Snyder

March 27, 2020 2:03 p.m.

5 Seconds of Summer’s latest release might be titled “CALM,” but its vibrant pop beats are anything but.

The Australian band’s fourth studio album, released Friday, explores a vivacious but heated relationship over the course of 12 tracks. Sonically, the band has fully left behind its pop-punk roots for polished lyrics and a darker take on pop music. At times solemn and introspective, “CALM” offers emotionally honest lyrics that are often obscured by heavy production and sonic repetition. Once that is stripped away, however, 5 Seconds of Summer offers a pensive reflection in the album’s quieter moments.

“Red Desert” provides a strong opening, featuring minimal guitar and smooth harmonies. The instrumentals increase throughout the song, expertly layering intense drumming and harmonies as the whole band sings “Red, red desert, heal our blues,” establishing the album’s central concept of using love as a healing force. Drummer Ashton Irwin’s skills shine as the song’s backbone that energetically builds to the ending’s stripped-back vocals.

The second track and third single, “No Shame,” continues the album’s groovy atmosphere, relying heavily on the much-repeated chorus to carry the upbeat song. But as the LP progresses, it becomes clear that 5 Seconds of Summer depends on the same sonic structure to carry almost every track. “Old Me” and “Easier” identically utilize a slow beginning followed by sudden swelling rhythm partway into each song.

The heavy production throughout “Old Me” in particular overshadows introspective lyrics as the song introduces the recurring concept of knowing oneself. In the same vein, these first four songs strip back the vocals in their respective endings, allowing the smooth vocals in each one to stand out. But while the trick works every once in a while, its overuse makes it little more than a gimmick.

[Related: Album review: Halsey takes listeners on her emotional, self-reflective journey in ‘Manic’]

Following this sonic monotony, “Teeth” comes as a breath of fresh air. The album’s second single features an intermittently halting beat and restrained falsetto that culminate in what could be gaudy but is instead a foreboding pop song. With its bouncy techno beat and enticing repetition, “Teeth” succeeds in the same places “Easier” fails. The refrain of “Talk so pretty, but your heart got teeth” expertly establishes a darker tone without sacrificing the song’s pop integrity.

But “Wildflower,” the album’s fifth single, returns to the previous idealistic tones with a pop anthem. This time, however, that idealism is paired with an underlying darker spirit. The song steadily gains momentum as it highlights small details like hair falling over a shoulder – but this love is “fatal.” It is this subtle juxtaposition between the seemingly happy love song and the underlying despair that elevates the track.

That somber tone intensifies in “Not In The Same Way.” Though still utilizing the same animated beat as a number of the previous songs, it marks a shift in the album as the band leans into the theme of sadness. As lead vocalist Luke Hemmings sings “On the floor, watch me bleed,” the song provides a clear culmination of the danger in “Teeth” and the fatalism in “Wildflower,” and these subtle threads provide the LP with understated depth.

The song seamlessly transitions into the lyrical powerhouse “Lover Of Mine” as Hemmings and bassist Calum Hood layer their vocals for the chorus, singing “When I take a look at my life and all of my crimes/ You’re the only thing that I think I got right.” In stripping away the intense production from the earlier songs, “Lover of Mine” can truly stand out, allowing both the wistful lyrics and the light instrumentals to shine.

[Related: Album review: ‘FANDOM’ creates diverse sounds to show true nature of rising fame]

Accentuating their woes with the album’s final three songs, “Thin White Lies” perfectly balances plucky guitar strums with distant shouts as Hemmings ends the song with the haunting proclamation, “I don’t really like me anymore.” The sorrow continues in “Lonely Heart,” a sweet yet somber track that has the narrator desperately lamenting his “lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely/ Heart.” Here, the repetition doesn’t feel like a lyrical cop-out; instead, it comes across as authentically pleading.

As the relationship traced throughout “CALM” has clearly come to an end, “High” grapples with becoming a better person, whether for oneself or someone else. Hemmings and Hood harmonize in the pre-chorus, singing “I need to stop letting me down” while the background vocals croon. A stark change in tone from the previous radio hits, the slow tempo of “High” ends the album on a much sadder note. Here, the reverberating guitar chords and light synths conclude on an achingly honest note.

Such sincerity is what saves “CALM” from being completely overcome by peppy beats and heavy production. And when the sadness does seep through, it’s clear that all 5 Seconds of Summer wants is a little emotional tranquility.

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Kristin Snyder | Podcast producer
Snyder is the Arts & Entertainment editor. She was previously the Theater|Film|Television editor.
Snyder is the Arts & Entertainment editor. She was previously the Theater|Film|Television editor.
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